A Sermon Delivered by DAVID B. UPDEGRAFF
Updegraff, David B. Old Corn; Or, Sermons and Addresses on The Spiritual Life. Boston: The McDonald & Gill Co., 1892, pages 241-254.

This is The Quaker Homiletics Online Anthology, Part 3: The 19th Century.

"John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins.--Mark 1: 4.

It is not our purpose in the present examination of this Scripture to consider either the rite of baptism or its mode, but to call attention to the person, life, and ministry of John, as the herald of our blessed Lord. It is always admitted that the position occupied by him in the history of divine revelation is most unique. His personal relations to Jesus confer a special interest and peculiar value to all that John ever said or did.

I. The circumstances that preceded and accompanied the birth of John are of the most interesting character. The preparation of the race and of all things for the appearance of the Lord from heaven, "the second man," were well-nigh completed. Prophecy and types had long been used to make the idea of "God manifest in the flesh" conceivable to men. But all providential preparations for the advent of the Savior of men were eclipsed by one who was especially ordained to go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways. The account of his nativity is carefully given by Luke. Zacharias was a priest of the course of Abijah, and when he was chosen by lot to minister before the Lord, he went into the temple to burn incense "according to the custom," while "the whole multitude of the people were praying without," and the "people marveled that he tarried so long in the temple." But there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And the angel said, "Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John." Other predictions followed. He should be great in the sight of the Lord. He should be a Nazarite. He should be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. He should turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He should make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

"Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years," was the query of the doubting heart of Zacharias. And the angel said, "I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings." But because Zacharias believed not his words, but wanted a sign, he got one, and the angel said, Thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed."

When he came out, he explained to the astonished multitude by signs that he had seen a vision. As soon as the days of his ministration were over he departed to his home in Judah, in the hill country of Judea.

Elizabeth did conceive, and though the birth of John was not supernatural in the sense of being contrary to nature, it was beyond the powers of nature, and he was thus the child of promise, as Isaac had previously been. He was "sent from God," and was the gift of God, as the name John implies.

When Zacharias wrote, saying, "his name is John," his sentence of muteness was terminated, and, being "filled with the Holy Ghost," he prophesied in rapturous strains of the coming salvation. Such was the early home of John; but even as a child he was in the desert, and waxed strong in spirit until the day of his showing unto Israel. He was being prepared to "prepare the way of the Lord." He was educated by the Holy Ghost. The Psalms of David and the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Malachi were, no doubt, but household words to him, while the memories of home and the holy influence of parents filled with the Holy Ghost and "walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless," were all burned in upon his soul But he was himself filled with the Holy Ghost, who could reveal the full consciousness of his high commission, and this fact of itself is the solution of many a question that perplexes students.

His days were passed far from "the stunning tide" of the world's conflicts, and the cruel magnificence of Herod's court was a thing of naught to John.

He was of the consecrated tribe of Levi, and a priest by birth, a conspicuous example of hereditary sanctity and ceremonial religiousness, yet there is nowhere any reference to priestly functions or any part whatever in the service of the temple. He was not even thus consecrated, but was in the deserts until the day of his appearing unto Israel.

In the solitude of the caverns and-mountain gorges of the wilderness the word of God came unto John, and his great soul was charged with Messianic revelations until they were like fire in his bones. God's hour had struck, and God's man and messenger was ready.

II. We have now to consider the character and purport of John's ministry. "And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins."

Suddenly emerging from retirement, he came upon the scene of greatest publicity. "John came in the spirit and power of Elias," who was in some respects his illustrious prototype. In austerity of life, zeal for God, and a peculiar power of the Holy Ghost, they resembled each other. But the contrasts were great as well. Elijah was the man of judgment, and a messenger of the old covenant. The drouth, the sword, and the avenging fire which fell upon the captains and their fifties at his word, all tell us this. And his career was fittingly closed when his chariot of fire, with horses of fire, were swept up into heaven by a whirlwind. John was the man of mercy, the messenger of peace and of the new covenant; the voice that cried, "Behold the Lamb of God!" Again and again had all Levitical institutions been well-nigh destroyed by the evil doings of those who "provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger." But again and again had they been restored by men raised up of God like Asa, Josiah, Hezekiah and Nehemiah, who burnt idols, cut down groves, put away wives, restored the feasts, rebuilt the wall, read the law, offered its sacrifices, cleansed the temple, sanctified the priests, and put again to rights the whole machinery of the Mosaic economy. Now again, at the close of that dispensation, we stand amid the fragments and ruin of the whole system. God's sentence, uttered by His last prophet, had been: "I have no pleasure in you, neither will I accept an offering at your hands." "Ye are cursed with a curse; for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation." "Ye are gone away from mine ordinances and have not kept them." "But my name shall be great among the Gen tiles." In fearful fulfillment had the torrent of evil risen for four hundred years, and not a single prophetic voice to stem its tide. The glory of the Lord had long since gone up from the midst of the city, and strangers were come into the sanctuaries of the Lord's house." Judea was a Roman province, and the tribute money that ought to have been given to God alone must be paid to Caesar. Into the midst of a scene like this comes the Lord's "messenger" with a commission, "to give light to them that sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide their feet into the way of peace," and to "turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just." The question is, Did he do it? Jesus testifies that he "fulfilled his mission." How? Was it by the restoration and reconstruction of Levitical rites? or by his Holy Ghost ministry, for which there was no provision whatever in the law of Moses, any more than for the symbol with which it was accompanied?

About thirty years before this, the few "just and devout" persons that were "waiting for the consolation of Israel" had seen the Lord's Christ, and taken Him into their arms, and encouraged one another to look to Him for "the redemption of Jerusalem." He was "an horn of salvation" and the only "hope of Israel." They now had none whatever from Moses or the law. To the scattered remnant, thus prepared and expectant, the first blast from the trumpet of "the prophet of the Highest" was hailed as the glad tidings that the "Sun of righteousness, with healing in his wings," had indeed arisen. It was a summons to repent and "believe the gospel"-- that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, because "the time is fulfilled." Once more, then, the solemn question is to be answered, -The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or of men?" The "chief priests and elders" of old were afraid to say it was not from God, and they knew it was not from Moses, so they "could not tell." His tests of repentance and righteousness were too severe for these ruling classes and domineering spirits. They could not make up their minds whether his mission was human, divine or diabolic, but they say "he hath a devil." But there are those in this day who do not hesitate to answer our Lord by saying we can tell. "It is from Moses, or possibly from the Egyptians as saith Herodotus." But in this question Moses is included with all other men. There is no third alternative. If it is from Moses, it is not "from heaven," which is to break the Scriptures, which declare that John "was sent from God."

But once more, if from Moses, and he was "a priest under the law," his functions were clearly prescribed, as well as his qualifications. (1.) He must be washed with water." He was there clothed in garments of fine white linen, with a "girdle of needlework" and "white linen bonnets," all "for glory and beauty." Then their "hands were laid upon the head of the bullock for the sin offering," and upon "the head of the ram for the burnt offering," and upon the "head of the ram of consecration." "And Moses put of its. blood upon the tip of their right ear, and upon the thumbs of their right hand, and upon the great toes of their right feet." "And Moses took of the anointing oil and of the blood which was upon the altar, and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his garments, and upon his sons and upon his sons' garments." They were then to "boil the flesh" of the ram of consecration and eat it with the bread in the basket of consecrations," and for seven days was this feast to be kept up at the "door of the tabernacle," "that ye die not." And this was priestly consecration under the law. (2.) He must continually bring his own sin offering and burnt offering and "make an atonement for thyself." (3.) His next work of offering the sacrifices and gifts of all the people was ceaseless. His post of duty must ever be in the midst of moaning oxen, bleating sheep and bleeding birds. He must stand between the people and their God and relieve them of every offensive detail in these bloody and, to us, revolting rites. As the most complete antithesis to all of this, look at John the Baptist. Instead of "living at the door of the tabernacle that he die not," his life is in the "deserts "; instead of garments of "beauty and glory," see his rough and uncomely clothing of "camel's hair"; instead of a linen "girdle of fine needlework" to fasten it about his loins, see a strip from the "skin" of some animal; instead of feeding from a basket of delicious "consecrations "presented by the people, his homely fare is furnished by the wilderness; and finally, no uplifted knife or burning censer is ever seen in his hand. But instead of a round of rites performed by the priest, independent of the moral instruction of the people, or of his own moral condition, John the Baptist came forth in the fullorbed brightness and power of his communion with God, and "full of the Holy Ghost," began his unceasing work to declare a "way of righteousness," into which the moral offscouring of the world might at once enter, and so "justify God." If otherwise, and his baptism was only one of the usages of the "law," how comes it that "the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him?" How came it that these "believed him not," but the publicans and harlots did, and went into the kingdom of God before them? His ministry summoned men to moral renovation, and unlike the ministry of those who minimize John's in the present day, it was clothed with the authority of the Holy Ghost. The hardened soldier cried for mercy, the weeping harlot was penitent, and the extortioner hastened to put his house in order. Such displays of God's power caused even the onlookers in that day to reason among themselves, "Is not this the Christ?" They never thought of Moses. His denunciation of sin, hypocrisy and uncleanness was carried into the palace of the king, and his fearless proclamation of the "Lamb of God," as the sinner's only refuge, received the tragic reward of moral courage. He was brutally murdered as the success of a vile plot of Herodias, who is said to have pricked with a bodkin the silenced tongue of this inflexible preacher of repentance. He suffered the ignominious death of a proto-martyr in the loathsome fortress of Machaerus.

But let us briefly discuss some of the specific ideas, or rather doctrines, upon which John insisted. Not as elaborate propositions, so much as trumpet peals of divine truth and gospel doctrines. We believe, and shall insist upon it, that John heralded the hope of the world; that his lessons are suited to every generation; that his message needs to be repeated in this nineteenth century as well as to the first, and that it is indeed "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God"; that Jesus sealed the new covenant made with man with His own blood, shed for the remission of sins; and that John's ministry stands for the dispensation of the Son, and is intermediate between that of the Father and that of the Holy Ghost, as it were, a clasp between the two.

Our text says, that he preached "the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins." Not baptism, but repentance for remission, is what John preached, and his entire ministry is elsewhere simply called "John's baptism," a term which refers chiefly to the spiritual work wrought, but including the simple rite that symbolized it.

(1.) John constantly proclaimed the truth about sin and its damning consequences: "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" As their fathers were, so were they, children of the wicked one. That was, and is, God's estimate of a sinner, and Jesus plainly told them so. "From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts," etc.

(2.) He not only proclaimed the blessedness of true believers as possessors of everlasting life, but the eternal ruin and wretchedness of persistent unbelievers. "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him "(John 3: 36).

(3.) John and Jesus were alike in commencing their public ministry by the cry, "Repent ye," and they grounded this call not only on the above facts, but urged the gospel of the kingdom of heaven that was at hand. A kingdom, however, demanding a thorough spiritual change, and not the exclusive heritage of the Jews.

Hear John declare to them: "Abrahamic succession depended upon is only a millstone about your necks." "It will not save you from the wrath of God." "Neither will any ceremonial observance." "Even yielding so far as to accept baptism at my hands will not do it." "Nothing short of deep, heartfelt repentance and the fruits thereof." "And God is able to raise up spiritual children unto Abraham, even out of dead Gentiles."

(4.) John demanded fruits worthy of genuine repentance. He insisted upon the legitimate fruits and practical power of repentance. "Now is the axe laid at the root of the trees: and every tree which beareth not good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire." "The kingdom of heaven is at hand."

(5.) But John not only preached the coming of the kingdom, he proclaimed the coming of the King. Not as a king, but as the Lamb of God that taketh away sin. This was the great central fact of all his preaching. Sin was guilt and condemnation. It was also defilement and death. But through the blood of the atoning Lamb, there was pardon and peace, life and cleansing. "Behold him!" "Believe on him, and receive everlasting life." Reject Him, and ye shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on you.

(6.) The other thing that John preached concerning the person of Christ was, that He would baptize His disciples with the Holy Ghost and with fire. The blood of the Lamb and this baptism with the Spirit were indeed the two central and inseparable truths in all John's preaching. He never taught his disciples that an experience of sins forgiven, and a new heart, was the ultimatum of Christian life; on the contrary, he always taught the need of an after work of the Spirit to perfect the inner life of holiness. "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance," or having reference to all that is implied in that word. It may also serve to effect important changes in your external relations with men. "But he that cometh after me shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." "After" I have prepared His way by turning you to the Lord your God for the remission of your sins, and the gift of everlasting life. This is a preparatory and foundation grace that is an essential preparation for the supplemental baptism by the Lord Jesus. It is clearly taught by Christ Himself, when He refers to this language of John, just before His ascension. His baptism was to bestow upon the disciples His own conscious presence, in the person of the Holy Ghost. It was not to supersede the necessity of foundation work, but to consummate or supplement it.

If, then, the question is still raised, What is involved or included in the ministry of John the Baptist? we may recapitulate in brief by turning once again to the prophetic declaration of Zacharias. He defines with perfect accuracy the "knowledge of salvation" that John was to give unto his people. It should consist, first, in the remission of sins; second, guiding our feet in the way of peace.

That this prophecy found an actual fulfillment in the spiritual lives of John's disciples, there can be no possible reason to doubt. They repented, confessed and forsook their sins, and followed Jesus. But repentance and confession of sin, coupled with faith in Christ, must result in pardon and justification. It cannot possibly be otherwise. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins."

If a ministry, then, that "made ready a people prepared for the Lord," the following points are clearly comprehended, whether the preacher be John, or any other true minister of Jesus Christ.

(1.) To turn men to the Lord their God, not to Moses, nor works, nor sacraments.

(2.) To give them a knowledge of salvation by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God.

(3.) To give them light instead of darkness, life instead of death, and to guide their feet into the way of peace. And "being justified by faith we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ," and in no other way.

John "did no miracle," but the resemblance between his mission and messages, and that of Jesus and His disciples, is quite unmistakable; their work was in like manner preparatory. Not merely in a chronological sense, or antecedent in point of time, but in a moral sense. The deeper realities of Christ's baptism and discipleship can never be comprehended by men until they are prepared for them by regeneration, or the beginning of Christian life. Foundation truths are much more easily apprehended than the deeper spiritual truth concerning the baptism, indwelling and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Atonement and pardon are for the ungodly, and are adapted to their apprehension. The gift of the Spirit is for the loving and obedient child.

The outpouring of Christ's blood was a visible, tangible thing that took place on this earth.

The outpouring of the Spirit is from heaven, and is a hidden mystery. There is, then, a double sense in which men are to be prepared for the Lord.

(1.) Prepared for discipleship, as soon as the Lord should appear, and call them to "follow" Him. This preparation was evinced by every one that Jesus thus called. "Immediately" they left their nets and followed him.

(2.) Prepared for the "after" baptism of Him who was "mightier" than John, when Jesus was glorified, and they were instructed to wait for it.

That John "fulfilled" his great commission, is borne witness to by Jesus Himself, whose name and person the Baptist did his full part to embalm with an imperishable glory. Again and again did Jesus assert the official dignity and grandeur of His servant John, and vindicate his personal character, while His latest word spoken on earth implies the most solemn reinforcement of all that had been said concerning the divine authority and marvelous results of the ministry of John the Baptist.